HELENA (Daily Montanan) - Multiple tribal and conservation groups announced plans on Tuesday to challenge an attempt by the  Montana Department of Environmental Quality to sidestep enforcing the state’s “bad actor” law against a mining company and its CEO, who the groups say left Montana taxpayers with a multi-million-dollar tab worth of environmental cleanup after it abandoned a large-scale mining operation in the late ’90s.

The DEQ filed a lawsuit against Hecla Mining Co. and its CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr., in 2018. The lawsuit would have labeled Baker a “bad actor” and prevented Hecla from opening proposed copper and silver mines near the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana.

According to the news release from tribes and conservation groups, Baker and his former company Pegasus Gold Corp dumped $32 million in cleanup costs on Montana taxpayers after going bankrupt in 1998 and upended operations at the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek gold mines.

The pollution from the Zortman-Landusky mines permanently contaminated the water on the Fort Belknap Reservation. And $32 million does not include the $2 million in annual water remediation costs near the reservation, said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit.

“This pollution is impacting the Fort-Belknap tribe, and it’s already polluting important historical and ceremonial sights for them. That’s a big slap in the face from both Baker for not cleaning up his mess and now the state for letting Baker get away with it,” Hernandez said.

The DEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the planned lawsuit. Hecla also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Bad Actor provision of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act was enacted to add more accountability for companies who neglect clean-up responsibilities at mining operations. Those labeled bad actors under the law cannot move forward with new mining operations until they have completed reclamation of past mining.

After a recent state ruling declaring DEQ’s jurisdiction over the Idaho-based company and its CEO, the department dropped the lawsuit, “citing the election of a new Governor, among other reasons,” according to the release. In a statement announcing its decision, the DEQ Director Chris Dorrington said, “In choosing to dismiss this case, I want Montanans to know that DEQ is not stepping away from continuing to seek reimbursement of these costs, and we are not backing down from our commitment to holding bad actors accountable for their actions.”

Gianfrote has supported Hecla and its proposed mines in Northwest Montana, according to the Montana Free Press.

Now the environmental and tribal groups who joined the DEQ in challenging Hecla and Baker are filing an independent lawsuit against DEQ for not fulfilling its legal duty to enforce the bad actor law against Hecla and Baker, according to the release.

“DEQ has done a one-eighty on enforcing the bad actor law,” said Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance, in the release. “They are allowing political favors to the mining industry to undermine the law and, in doing so, are abdicating their responsibility to protect Montana taxpayers from current and future liabilities.”